One of the sections which caught our attention on first reading the text of the Counter-Terrorism Bill 2008 was what appeared to be a retrospective carte blanche, to cover up any past misdeeds of the intelligence agencies, with regard to the handling of confidential disclosures from people who have a duty of confidence e.g. lawyers, accountants, medical doctors, financial institutions, commercial companies etc.
Clause 20 subsection 4
20 Disclosure and the intelligence services: supplementary provisions
(4) Nothing in that section shall be read as casting doubt on the legality of anything done by any of the intelligence services before that section came into force.
As we pointed out before, the effect of this wording is precisely the opposite of , presumably, the Government intended. Given the lack of public trust trust in this Labour Government , and the excessive secrecy which the intelligence agencies appear to use to hide their failures, most people reading it will think "no smoke without fire".
This sub-clause was unconvincingly defended by Home Ofice Minister Tony McNulty during the Committee stage debate: see Counter-Terrorism Bill - Commons Committee debate 6th May 2008 - Columns 236 - 240
As predicted, yesterday's Report stage "debate" in the Commons was heavily programmed or guillotined, and, there was no debate or explanation for this utterly obscurely worded Government amendment which had sneaked onto the order papers.
Clause 20 Disclosure And The Intelligence Services: Supplementary Provisions
Amendment made: No. 55, page 15, line 33, leave out subsection (4).--[Mr. McNulty.]
This, together with a wodge of other amendments went through on the nod, without a vote.
The offending Clause 20 sub-clause (4) has gone - so what changed between the 6th May and the 10th June to remove it ?
There may have been a perfectly sensible and reasonable re-evaluation of the Government's aggressive stance on this issue, but, since they have not deigned to bother to explain in public, they deserve no credit for democratic openness and transparency.
During the Committee stage mentioned above, Tony McNulty claimed that
That is all that clauses 19 to 21 do. They mirror sections 33 to 35 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Our concern is that the absence of similar explicit protections for the intelligence and security agencies may cause doubt in the minds of those wishing to give information that it is safe to do so. Given the vital work of the intelligence and security agencies it is important that nothing should dissuade those wishing to protect our society by giving information to the agencies, so that the agencies can carry out their vital statutory functions. It is important that nothing gets in the way of that, and that is why those clauses are offered.
This is nonsense !
There are far more practical obstacles to communicating with the intelligence agencies than these legalistic "statutory information gateways" either for SOCA or the other intelligence agencies (MI5, MI6 or GCHQ).
There is simply no easy mechanism for members of the public to communicate securely and anonymously, initially at least, with these bureaucracies.
The existing Anti-terrorism hotline and the MI5 Security Service SSL encrypted web form appear to be just "information blackholes" , which provide o feedback that any message has been actually received, let alone understood, or taken seriously.
They have also been devalued by the atrocious Climate of Fear "snoop on your neighbours", snoop on photographers, snoop on mobile phone users" propaganda campaigns.
SOCA, GCHQ and MI6 are even worse in this regard - they positively discourage contact from the public,. This contrasts with, for example, their United States counterparts, who all publish contact details, and provide encrypted web forms and (unencrypted) email addresses and telephone and fax numbers for the public to contact them on.
Email us (ideally using our PGP public encryption key for blog [at] spy [dot] org [dot] uk) and we might give you some concrete examples of this.
Of course there will be a lot of chaff and spam which such such methods of communication will attract from the public, but that is no excuse for not devoting some of the vast amounts of public money being spent on these agencies, to actually take notice of and analyse and acknowledge what some of the public is willing to tell them.
There will, no doubt, be more political shenanigans in today's votes on this Bill in the Commons. The "Westminster Village" commentators all seem to be predicting a narrow Government victory over the "42 days" distraction.